Clash is crunching through what it means to assign number ratings to album reviews. We’ve reconsidered our scoring guidelines and made them public so that anyone – PRs, bands, managers, labels, website readers (hello!), your mum – can make sense of what we mean when we give an album 8/10, 2/10, or somewhere between these two points. (Nobody’s going to release an album worth less than 2/10 in 2014, right?) And we’ve looked a little into the Psychology Of Scoring, talking to celebrated critical sorts like Alexis Petridis and Stevie Chick. What we learned: that nobody really likes deciding on a score for record reviews.
What also came up was a discussion on the qualities necessary to rate a record 10/10 – does it have to be an album that you love in the moment, at the time, or must it be one that you know will have real longevity, outlasting any scene it might be attached to? Naturally personal preferences come into the mix – and context it important, too. What else is out, and how does this amazing album compare? Do I think it’s worth maximum marks just because everything around it is so grey? And so on, and so forth.
Right now, the way we see it is that it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that a new-release album can receive a 10/10 score. It’s just too soon to know exactly what that record is going to mean, both to the individual and to the wider music landscape. Critics rarely get a good month-long run at a record prior to reviewing it, so the time available for any set to bed it is compromised considerably by servicing restrictions and print deadlines. However, hindsight is a blessing and it’s easy to look back at albums that have proved incredibly influential, somewhat timeless whatever their style, and lay a 10 down at their feet.
So that’s what we’re doing: below, you’ll find Ten 21st Century 10/10s as chosen by Clash (cycle through album covers in the gallery above). These do not represent the best albums, as many more tremendous LPs factored into our discussion only to be omitted here. They’re simply great records – records that will last a lifetime, taking their places (if they’ve not already) beside the established cornerstones of the 20th century’s popular music canon. Some predate Clash’s first issue, published in 2004. Others have been firm office favourites since release right up to the here and now.
We hope you enjoy our selections, and do please let us know about your own 10/10-worthy favourites – find us on Twitter here. In no particular order, then…
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The Strokes – ‘Is This It’ (2001)
Remember the fever for this record? Guitar’s great new hopes, The Strokes were going to dropkick amps and attitude back into the mainstream charts. And they only bloody well did – ‘Is This It’ debuted on the British album chart at two, buoyed by no little buzz but ultimately carried on the strengths of its songs: 11 of them, delivered gimmick-free in well under 40 minutes.
Compact and not wasting a second of its run time, this garage-rocking set was called a “world-changing moment” by writer Garry Mulholland, and Zane Lowe has remarked that it set a template for rock ‘n’ roll in the present day. The impact of ‘Is This It’ is at least partially responsible for the formation of Kings Of Leon (make of that what you will), its makers spawning an inevitable rash of imitators. Of course, few were any cop – but these New Yorkers, while not the most original outfit highlighted on this page, fully delivered on their promise and some.
Accusations of style over substance were heard from some quarters, but really – would we be talking about this album 13 years later if it didn’t comprise a collection of completely cracking songs?
Comparable brilliance: Interpol – ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ (2002), The White Stripes – ‘White Blood Cells’ (2001)
The Strokes, ‘Hard To Explain’
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Arcade Fire – ‘Funeral’ (2004)
While The Strokes seemed to blaze into the British music press as a fully formed unit ready for world domination (of course, the truth was a little different), Montreal’s Arcade Fire crept rather slower into consciences – it wasn’t until the record’s fourth single, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’, that the band scored a UK top 20.
‘Funeral’ performed well throughout 2005, earning a Grammy nomination and going on to be one of the decade’s most-acclaimed studio sets. (Metacritic positions it inside its top-30 best-reviewed albums of all time.) It’s the slow reveal of this band’s abilities that made ‘Funeral’ feel so special – while ‘Is This It’ was certainly high on quality, it arguably left little in the way of an emotional impression, but Arcade Fire achieved a hold on the senses that cut deeper than dancefloor flirtation.
Like The Strokes’ debut, it’s quite possible that Arcade Fire realised their greatest long-player at the first time of asking. 2010’s ‘The Suburbs’ rectified some of the overblown tendencies of the band’s second set, 2007’s ‘Neon Bible’, but it still felt curiously cold compared to ‘Funeral’. To this day, the scorched soul of these 10 songs shines like a winter sun, bright against the gloom of the loss that inspired it.
Comparable brilliance: Wilco – ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002), Animal Collective – ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ (2009)
Arcade Fire, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’
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Sufjan Stevens – ‘Illinoise’ (2005)
Forget about the 50-state concept that never was – getting tied up in that discussion is only going to distract from the singular beauty offered by ‘Illinoise’, an album that in its lengthy runtime encapsulated everything that Detroit’s indie-folk fellow Sufjan Stevens was capable of.
Naturally, thematically this set is directly informed by the state it (nearly) takes its name from – it references local UFO sightings, the Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr, and names one song after the city of Decatur. But it’s not just geography and culture that Stevens is drifting in, lyrically – he’s also addressing Christianity on ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, questioning the very presence of God in letting a loved one die of disease, and ‘The Seers Tower’ talks of the second coming of Christ. If this all sounds a little heavy, it can be – but ‘Illinoise’ never gets itself unduly bogged down by baggage. Stevens respects well enough the need to craft memorable songs to carry his chosen stories.
And this represents his most consistent collection of material, by far – one that swells into huge designs only to simmer down into the most affecting introspection. Comparisons at the time of the album’s release included the Guardian’s claim that this was music like “The Polyphonic Spree produced by Brian Eno”, while NME recognised the set’s quality melodies. It’s easy enough to let the heavyweight themes wash over you, so marvellous are some of these tunes. But really sink into ‘Illinoise’ and its depth is evident: there’s so very much more here than what comparable artists were offering at the time, and have done since.
Comparable brilliance: Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2007), Joanna Newsom – ‘Ys’ (2006)
Sufjan Stevens, ‘Chicago’
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Fever Ray – ‘Fever Ray’ (2009)
The Clash team had The Knife’s ‘Silent Shout’ down as a contender for this piece – but it wasn’t until the very last minute that we realised that, actually, it’s this debut solo set from said Swedish brother-sister electro crew’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, aka Fever Ray, that has exhibited the longest-lasting hold on our attentions. Its influence continues to be heard in a wealth of artists, from the scattergun screeches of Crystal Castles and the swollen heart of Planningtorock, to Soap & Skin’s naked emotions and Glasser’s mirror shine.
The reveal for this astonishing record was a true moment of recent musical history: a darkly pulsing track, ‘If I Had A Heart’, emerged a month prior to its parent LP, and immediately had us sucked into its menacing world. Distorted vocals dance across the track, in slow-motion embraces with themselves, from the other side of some portal that should never have been opened… but, now, we’re glad that it was.
The production throughout is distinctly uncluttered – while it might not have served as an influence on the first album from The xx, these two albums share a sparseness, an awareness of space. Their executions are very different, but the core compositional constituents are (perhaps surprisingly) similar. With The Knife, Andersson sang like she was sat on a blade’s edge – here, she’s exploring a deep murk, arms outstretched. Most would be terrified, but Karin presses on, full of wicked confidence.
Comparable brilliance: The xx – ‘xx’ (2009), Grimes – ‘Visions’ (2012)
Fever Ray, ‘When I Grow Up’
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J Dilla – ‘Donuts’ (2006)
It’s impossible to write about ‘Donuts’, the second solo album proper from Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla (aka Jay Dee, real name James Dewitt Yancy), without framing it with the tragedy that followed so soon after its release: the premature death of its maker from the blood disease TTP. It’s possible that this context has coloured ‘Donuts’ in a more positive light than it otherwise might be seen in if Dilla was alive today – possible, but unlikely as hell.
‘Donuts’ is a joy, from start to finish – amazing given the circumstances of its creation, with the vast majority of tracks laid down from Dilla’s hospital bed. It’s entirely instrumental, sampled snatches of vocals aside, and yet feels like a really personal statement, a beyond-satisfying epilogue of sorts coming after the great production work Dilla had put into tracks by The Roots, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo and so many more. Those relationships, between producer and vocalists, helped to shape Dilla’s career – but it’s ‘Donuts’ that caps it, and exploring every one of its details is as magnificent as scaling the tallest peak.
Its legacy is undeniable, too. Listen to a host of producers today and you can hear elements informed by the work of Dilla, from Clams Casino through to Hudson Mohawke. And beats from ‘Donuts’ continue to be sampled for fresh use amongst contemporary rappers: members of Wu-Tang Clan, Drake and Big Pooh have turned to these 31 cuts for still-fresh sounds to contextualise anew. Pitchfork deemed ‘Donuts’ worthy of a 10/10 on its 2013 reissue, while Clash has previously celebrated its brilliance in our Essential 50 of 2009 (here). And we see no reason to not continue our love affair with such a remarkable record.
Comparable brilliance: Mos Def – ‘The Ecstatic’ (2009), MF DOOM – ‘Mm.. Food’ (2004)
J Dilla, ‘Last Donut Of The Night’
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Burial – ‘Untrue’ (2007)
Mystery and anonymity can take an artist a long way – but when it backfires and the press is doing what it can to uncover your identity, what then? Do you smile and accept the reveal, or scurry away back to the shadows, happy to lurk there until emerging under your own terms. Burial sort of took the latter approach following his Mercury Prize nomination for ‘Untrue’, the London producer’s second LP. True enough, his real name was made public – but it’s only in 2014 that he’s properly stepped into the light courtesy of a widely circulated selfie (news), seemingly ready to make good on a follow-up to this unique album.
‘Untrue’ still sounds alien, like the work of a nocturnal breed of musician never glimpsed by the mainstream. That this ever connected with the kind of crowd that judges album awards is bizarre, as it comes from strains of electronica that only really orbited what might be considered breakthrough fare. ‘Untrue’ touches on plenty of garage, but hardcore too, and even the trip-hop textures that bubbled beneath the chart-ready sheen of Massive Attack et al.
Burial’s eponymous debut of 2006 had been a critical hit, revered for its reworking of 2-step tropes into something a whole lot more spooked than the music synonymous with the pigeonhole. Few could have predicted such a definitive statement coming just a year later, though – yet that’s exactly what ‘Untrue’ was, and remains: the high water mark for any electronic music that dares to step outside the club and into more cerebral territories, carrying with it a palpable paranoia which manifests through savvy samples and a disquieting atmosphere permeating every second of the experience.
Comparable brilliance: Shackleton – ‘Three EPs’ (2009), Four Tet – ‘Rounds’ (2003)
Burial, ‘Ghost Hardware’
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Flying Lotus – ‘Los Angeles’ (2008)
Named after his hometown, Steven Ellison’s second LP as Flying Lotus really crystallised the sound template that has come to define the artist: distinctly individual productions which draw from experimental electronics, jazz music and hip-hop beats. 2010’s ‘Cosmogramma’ collection positioned Ellison as a real go-to guy for fresh productions, from the perspective of would-be contributors, but for Clash it’s his previous album that set everything in motion.
‘Los Angeles’ is FlyLo’s first album for Warp, and the combination of inspired artist and hugely respected record label really elevated this man’s profile, home and (more importantly from where we’re sitting) abroad. His rise through the Warp ranks, from newcomer to a foundation stone of the entire roster, was rapid – and it’s true enough to say that his presence within the Sheffield-founded stable opened its back catalogue up to brand-new listeners.
There’s traces of gaming influence to be heard here, 16-bit bleeps set beside elements with roots more easily followed back to global sounds – gentle yet exotic motifs circling the central spine of jittery bass and clicking micro-percussion. There’s a popping quality to proceedings – everything shoots long shadows, casting contrast between compositional beats and pieces. It sounds at times like it’s about to fall apart before your ears – but Ellison’s control is absolute. He teeters on the edge just for the thrill, knowing that this music is too powerful to come apart under any kind of pressure. Some might feel ‘Los Angeles’ oddly cold given its title – but we prefer to think of it as effortlessly cool.
Comparable brilliance: Boards Of Canada – ‘Geogaddi’ (2002), Rustie – ‘Glass Swords’ (2011)
Flying Lotus, ‘Parisian Goldfish’ (excerpt – watch the whole fairly NSFW video here)
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Kanye West – ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (2010)
After this expansive, luxurious masterpiece, ‘Yeezus’ was the natural reaction: the tearing down of something that Kanye West had put everything he had into erecting, the dancing amongst the rubble, the shattering of precedent. Which is one way of saying what a big deal ‘…Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was.
It’s just one of the most enveloping records of recent years, a set which swallows the listener entirely, consuming them. It’s a monster, a beast, a dark delight indeed within which its maker revels in his role as ringmaster, wheeling on guests but never losing sight of his audience. Whereas Kanye’s previous LPs were probably more consistent, coherent sets when appreciated for their individual merits, ‘…Dark Twisted Fantasy’ smashes together everything the rapper had learned up to that point, in terms of production and lyricism, and not to mention a healthy dose of cynicism.
Across this album’s 70 minutes, the listener witnesses Kanye deconstruct himself – from the shame of fame to the fallen friends he used to call his best, frank admissions of addiction and self-abuse right through to explicit talk of sexual adventures. It’s rarely an easy listen – there are moments, such as ‘Runaway’, where beauty beats through the bastard blackness, but these are exceptions to the rule: oppressive, claustrophobic production and aggressively delivered rhymes.
For all of its volume, though, there is a tenderness here. Kanye doesn’t always articulate himself in the most endearing fashion, but the sickness that plagued his heart and soul is conveyed clearly enough. It’s a rarity of a rap record in the sense that it best works as a complete piece – prior to this, Kanye was making tracks, compiled for album use but never quite as coherent as what he realises here. For all of its stylistic diversions, the tone remains one of absolute confidence: this is what rap can sound like in the 21st century, if you want it.
Comparable brilliance: Earl Sweatshirt – ‘Doris’ (2013), OutKast – ‘Stankonia’ (2000)
Kanye West, ‘Runaway’
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LCD Soundsystem – ‘Sound Of Silver’ (2007)
Someone’s having a laugh on Wikipedia. At the time of writing, the entry for this second album from LCD Soundsystem is described as being, genre wise, extreme metal. Hmm. Try wonderful contemporary disco – the kind that gets any dancefloor heaving with bodies eager to just release themselves to sounds so sublime. From a city that did so much to popularise disco, New York, LCD’s MO always seemed to be to bring people together, people who mightn’t be dance fans by design but who found the draw of this music irresistible.
LCD’s music is best heard in a crowd, words bellowed back at main songwriter James Murphy. It’s party music for when nobody can quite decide what to play, and ‘Sound Of Silver’ is the standout collection of the three studio sets that this band recorded up to their disbanding in 2011. ‘Someone Great’ bubbles and squeaks with immediate accessibility, its pace not so hurried that the two-left-footed can’t enjoy its rhythms; and ‘North American Scum’ is the jump-up antagonist in the tracklist, a boisterous blip on the indie-dance radar that soon enough expands to destroy the entire machine.
The album’s heart, though, is ‘All My Friends’. You’ve not seen what this song means unless you’ve seen what this song means, in a club, where strangers come together to sing together with the slight suggestion that smiles might become crossed with tears before the song’s climax. Its imperfect piano loop is a nightmare to mix into from a DJ’s perspective, Murphy’s vocals coming in too soon to let it build steam in the background of a preceding selection. But once it’s cut loose… What is that about his voice? Slightly cracked, but optimistic. And the music, it’s so simple, just building in layers as it progresses with no real dynamic shift. And yet, it’s a perfect 10, often accompanied by a room of high-fives.
Comparable brilliance: Daft Punk – ‘Discovery’ (2001), Hot Chip – ‘The Warning’ (2006)
LCD Soundsystem, ‘All My Friends’
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Dizzee Rascal – ‘Boy In Da Corner’ (2003)
Where Burial took marginal sounds existing far beyond the everyday into a wider arena of appreciation in quite a subtle fashion, Dylan Mills aka Dizzee Rascal absolutely smashed down the doors of the music industry with this debut album. ‘Boy In Da Corner’ channelled street sounds in a way so ferociously individual that it feels so crushing when one hears the rapper’s material of the present day, pop fluff that’s more attached to sunshine getaways than the grime running through the veins of these tracks.
The only Mercury Prize winner on our little list of 10 here – we discussed others, such as PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ and Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ – ‘Boy In Da Corner’ is probably the last LP to win said award which really felt like nothing you’d heard before, in some way. Its cues came from the underground, from a scene that only those explicitly connected to it would have known about. It’s an album of its time in its production, in its lyrics, spat from the soul of a teenager in tough times – but it possesses a timelessness, too, born from its perfect presentation of grime’s potential before it was absorbed by the mainstream. This was an urban music Britain – London, specifically – could call its own, not directly aping any influences from across the Atlantic.
That said, the chunky rock motifs of ‘Jus’ A Rascal’ betray this artist’s love of American metal, of Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana. And the pounding percussion (“big beat”, indeed) of ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ feels for all the world like it’s going to break into a Run-D.M.C.-style rap-rock workout – until Dizzee harnesses it and shaves the sides to a razor-sharpness. Throughout, Mills sounds like he’s buzzing on a triple-shot of energy drink-mixed spirits, vocal lines raspy and rapid but never without cause – and subsequent effect. The Guardian called Dizzee the most original and exciting artist to emerge from British dance in a decade – and he was. Was.
Comparable brilliance: The Streets – ‘Original Pirate Material’ (2002), Kendrick Lamar – ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d City’ (2012)
Dizzee Rascal, ‘I Luv U’
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